13 July 2006


As Israel rubbishes Gaza and blockades Lebanon, I'm in the middle of reading the book of Isaiah. I'm bewildered by the Israeli government's behavior these days. Has either God or humanity given the nation of Israel impunity to declare a holy ban wherever it chooses, whatever the disproportionality, regardless of the loss of innocent lives? Is Israel's current behavior more like the holy obedience of Joshua at Jericho? ("Shout!—God has given you the city! The city and everything in it is under a holy curse and offered up to God.") Or more like Isaiah's first chapter, vv15-17?—
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
These verses must not be quoted without adding the very next:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD.
"Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool...." (v. 18; NIV)
In other words, repent!

Repentance is not self-flagellation, self-minimizing, or groveling. It's a change of heart and mind, a willingness to look at one's behavior and one's orientation relative to God, and to change that orientation Godwards. It doesn't require public humiliation—
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for God is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:13 NIV, adapted)
—but it does require a change in direction. However universal God's grace might be in our carefully calibrated self-oriented theologies, I do not believe there is impunity for causing misery to others. Not for Israel, nor for Dick Cheney, nor for us.

Last week I wrote in some heat, defending doctrine. The closer a doctrine can be traced to Jesus, the more I'm bound to take it seriously, and it doesn't get any closer than this: "'The time has come,' he [Jesus] said. 'The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1:15.) I'm so grateful that the two requirements are paired: the deliberate, clear-eyed moral examination and redirection of heart/mind, and the acceptance of a joyful invitation of reconciliation with God made possible by that redirection.

Once I was a member of a meeting of ministry and counsel, and we were encouraging a thoughtful seeker to consider membership. I was startled by her response: "You don't require enough of me. You need to have a deeper and more challenging dialogue with me, or I might not believe either you or I are worth it." Since one of the ministry and counsel members at the time was uncomfortable with even the minor threshold we already had, her objection led to some interesting discussions! To risk a bit of overinterpretation (I believe I'm on solid ground), I heard her saying that invitation without repentance either demeans membership or demeans the member. Don't take me for granted!

The same is true of the church itself. I recall a biting commentary by Charles McCarthy on the Christian church's complicity in violence (from memory, can't find it anywhere): "Being church means never having to say you're sorry." Not true, as Pope John Paul II well knew. But most churches and meetings I know are better at identifying villains outside their own systems, and perhaps scapegoats within, and not so good at organizational repentance.

Step 4 of Alcoholics Anonymous's 12 Steps involves a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself in preparation for becoming entirely willing to have my shortcomings removed and make amends. Repentance is nothing more or less than this honesty and this willingness. As for the next steps, I believe that Jesus might be a lot more tender than AA.

The more recent doctrines of the church may be helpful in warding off power plays, elitism, mystical tangents, works-righteousness, and other exaggerations to which we're prone both as reformers and as traditionalists. The more we want to grow intellectually or spiritually in the faith, the more interesting those doctrines can be, both in what they say and what they don't say. But if someone presents me a doctrine or a book or a theology and calls it indispensable, I have to ask, "But what of those people who simply heard Jesus say Repent and believe the Good News, without benefit of your new doctrine or book? What if they can't follow the subtle intricacies of your reasoning, or are innocent of the distortions your doctrine seeks to correct?"

On the other hand, as Patti Crane reminds us writers, "Know your knowables." The things I don't know, and can be excused for not knowing, whether through historical accident or my own limited capacities, will not alienate me from God. But once I do know something and choose to act defiantly, I need to repent. Often conservative Christians emphasize personal—particularly sexual—sin as the prime example of the need for repentance. (In some cultures, any sin not known to be practiced by the speaker will do!) In contrast, many Friends resist being asked to repent on matters of personal behavior—but are we then sacrificing the certainty that we also have about not killing? Or are we safe from making the parallel case because we've arranged our affluent lives so that, in fact, we are so unlikely to be confronted by the dilemma? Charles McCarthy warns of the consequence of "moral laxism" in the Catholic context:
According to Catholic just war norms, which only have validity for Catholics within the acceptable moral systems of Catholic moral theology, if there is not strict moral certitude that a war is just and is being conducted justly—then the killing in it is unjust. In Catholic moral theology, intentional unjust killing is always intrinsically and gravely evil—it is always murder. It is never morally permissible. A laxist interpetation of the standards of Catholic just war theory employed in order to achieve a pseudo moral certainty that supports the unjust destruction of human life is itself a grave evil, which if participated in at any stage with full knowledge and full consent is mortal sin. [from "Christian Just War Theory and Moral Laxism: A Chronically Misleading Episcopal Witness"; pdf here.]
I don't have the expertise to present the Jewish parallel, but I'm utterly convinced that there is great moral danger in Israel's crushing the innocent and wrecking their lives in the search for national security. But with equal certainty, I know there is great danger for me in exercising a moral righteousness that is only externally directed, never internal.

A few more righteous links:
  • Open Source Theology is a useful resource in considering the right use of doctrine. See, for example, the thread entitled "Defining evangelicalism."
  • Tangaroa is at Raroia, having arrived last week. To see the position of the raft, go to this page; and visit the English-language weblog of the expedition, which followed the wake of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition.
  • Recent posts in Robin M's "What canst thou say" weblog chronicles her recent explorations of converging Quaker dialogues, including sessions at the General Conference gathering in Tacoma and our own little gathering of bloggers in Newberg, Oregon, last Saturday.
  • Friends Committee on National Legislation issued this press release on the Pentagon's declaration of intent to treat all detainees by Geneva Convention standards. The release includes a link to the Defense Department's memo on the subject. Please be vigilant: the administration continues to look for ways to undermine the spirit of Geneva. (Example. Example 2, added Friday.)


Paul L said...

Johan -- I don't undrestand your bewilderment over Israel's response to Hezbollah's incursion, murder and kidnapping of Israeli citizens? I, too, pray that Israel will find the strength and courage to break the cycle.

But I don't find its response bewildering at all; it is what any sensible [secular] nation-state would do under similar circumstances, isn't it?

Or is the objection over the disproportionality of the response? Is Israel deliberately targeting innocents instead of the guilty? (I'd believe anything, but haven't heard any evidence of that.)

I just don't understand.

Johan Maurer said...

Trying my best to set aside my pacifist biases for a moment: If I were a police or military leader and some of my people had been kidnapped and pulled across a border, I would pour resources into the search for intelligence, culprits, and every possible channel of collaboration with those on the other side of that border. I would not trash that other side's civilian infrastructure, kill innocent civilians, and impose what even the Israelis acknowledge is collective punishment. (I interpret Olmert's declaration that it will be painful for people in Gaza as collective punishment.)

I'm specifically talking about the Israeli government now. As always, there's a lively discussion in Israeli media, with some commentators within Israel making these same points about collective punishment, deaths of innocents, and collective punishment.

Just to consider Israel's ambivalent relationship with the Palestinian-governed territories: The Israeli government seems to work that ambivalence to its advantage constantly. Sometimes it treats those fragmented lands as a foreign government, demanding this or that policy change from that foreign government. At other times it operates as a rogue occupying power, collecting taxes, turning the water on and off, approving or denying the right to move about within the territories. In other instances, it's impossible to classify Israel's relationship with those territories; Israel makes the rules as it goes: with extrajudicial executions, the frequent destruction of private property without compensation, the unquestioned right to enter anyone's home at any time, the treatment of a whole ethnic group with radical prejudice. Israeli authorities demand more effective policing by Palestinian authorities, but kill police officers, crush their computers and equipment during raids, destroy their buildings, all the while imprisoning most of the Palestinian constituency in bantustans. And if anyone questions Israel about their heavy-handed treatment of Palestinians, the Israeli response is to point to the terrorism. Among relatively small groups of scholars, intellectuals, and journalists, the discussion does go further, to ask whether collective punishment and humiliation and terrorism are a vicious cycle, but on the larger world stage, nobody seems to demand that Israel account for its part in this cycle. Why are Israeli officials unwilling to use normal civilized policing methods to counter violent crime, instead choosing methods that, cumulatively, seem to signal a desire to eliminate Palestine? Hamas wants to eliminate Israel, apparently, but there's plenty of evidence that some sectors within Israel want to eliminate Palestine as an effective reality—and this is never dealt with publicly.

I see hypocrisy in Israel's approach to Lebanon as well. Israel points to Lebanon's enmeshment with Hezbollah as justifying Israel attacking the country, rather than just Hezbollah's own operations. However, Israeli intelligence knows full well how weak the Lebanese government is, and the demand to reign in Hezbollah is empty rhetoric. The secular side of me would understand securing the border and using police and intelligence methods to root out Hezbollah's capacity to raid Israel and launch missiles, but how does destroying Lebanon's economy, killing innocent civilians, and in general behaving like a total bully, secure the release of the kidnapped soldiers and increase Israel's security and moral health?

My questions are in part rhetorical, but what truly frustrates me is that Israel is not subjected by the world community to any process of accountability for its choices to kill and destroy. The essential question that Israel and its sponsors, principally the USA, should have to answer all boil down to, essentially, "Isn't there a better way to accomplish objectives that nobody would deny Israel has a right to accomplish?" The lack of a discussion at this level is what makes some of us wonder if another, uglier, agenda underlies this grisly quest for the elusive goal of national security--either a goal of elimination of Palestine, or, equally tragic, a loss of a national moral sensibility, a loss of biblical perspective, a misappropriation of Joshua and marginalization of Isaiah.

Johan Maurer said...

PS: This isn't an exact parallel, but what if a corrupt unit of Mexico's police kidnapped a U.S. narcotics officer at the border? Stranger things have happened. The U.S. would not bomb Nogales or shoot up Mexican police stations.